When George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, one of Philadelphia’s elite magnets, was awarded a coveted Blue Ribbon in 2019, Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson praised it as a beacon of excellence.
“I want to salute Carver’s commitment to diversity and equity – it does it in a way no one else does. It’s unmatched in the city,” said Wilkerson.
Yet as Philadelphia revamps its citywide selective admissions policy in the name of improving diversity and equity, no school has been disrupted as much as Carver, a predominantly Black school. Since the lottery-based, centralized process was unveiled, some Carver parents have lamented that the new system hurts them and their children.
“It’s causing a lot of anxiety,” said Angelique Gerald, whose son Tafari was wait-listed for Carver’s ninth grade, even though he is currently attending the school as an eighth grader. “He is a straight-A student. He has immersed himself in the ‘Carver way’ since seventh grade. I don’t understand any of this. He’s done everything they told him to do.”
Like students admitted to Carver’s seventh and eighth grade middle-years program, Tafari assumed, based on the prevailing practice, that as long as he kept up his grades and remained otherwise qualified, he could stay until graduation. He has a closetful of Carver T-shirts and other paraphernalia he has collected since he enrolled.
This year’s overhauled policy, however, does not give preference to current Carver eighth graders for the ninth grade. They were put in a citywide lottery pool with everyone else.
As a result, parents said, 24 of the current 66 eighth graders, including Tafari, were wait-listed; most of them were Black students.
“The perception is that [the new process] mostly impacts affluent families who want to send their children to Masterman,” said Tanya Folk, a Carver parent whose child did get an acceptance to the high school. “But this has also had an impact on regular Black families.”
It seems the district underestimated interest in the school – while each new class is usually around 200 students, so far more than 300 have indicated they will accept the offer to attend, parents were told at a meeting Wednesday night.
So next year’s ninth grade could be 50% larger than usual, while excluding as many as two dozen qualified current eighth graders at the school who wanted to stay.
“I feel like it’s really not fair,” Tafari said. “I had expectations of being there in ninth grade and was looking forward to another friend going there with me. But all that went away.”
The new admissions system was unveiled in October, just weeks before the selection window for eighth graders began. Revised with little public input, it replaced a process in which principals and school-based admissions committees at the district’s 21 most coveted “criteria-based” schools made the final choices from among qualified students in shaping their incoming classes.
Admission to a group of so-called “citywide” high schools had already been done by lottery. But the new process added the most selective schools and programs to the lottery system, while also giving preference to students from four low-income ZIP codes.
While the new policy has been fraught with controversy since the start, district leaders have been steadfast in defending it as a huge step forward and the centerpiece of its commitment to antiracism by removing bias and opening opportunities to deserving students who didn’t have them before.
For too long, “We collectively upheld a process we’ve known for years is inequitable and in some cases not even equal,” Karyn Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services, told the City Council during a December hearing.
Asked about the parental complaints, Superintendent William Hite said that, by definition, not every qualified child who sought admission would get in under the new system. The point, he said, was to expand who is qualified and then treat all the students equitably so that good students from schools and neighborhoods that rarely apply to or get into magnets now have a chance.
“You know by virtue of a lottery there are going to be some children who are not successful [in getting into their preferred schools], but we still feel that giving more qualified students the opportunity to have access to these programs is the more important thing,” said Hite, who is leaving the district in August after 10 years.
But many parents of children who didn’t get their top choices – and even some who did – say the new process has its own flaws, citing its arbitrariness and wondering about fairness and equity when some stellar students are offered no placements at all.
“In essence, this lottery system created a cruel, high-stakes game of musical chairs. When the music stopped, it was clear that some students would not find a seat,” said a letter from a group called Parents for Excellent Schools that has formed in opposition to the changes. “Yet this was the vision of equity advanced by the district.”
Becoming an antiracist institution is one of the chief aims of “goals and guardrails” adopted by the Board of Education in 2020. Back then, Hite also talked about reforming the selective admissions system, which became a huge issue during protests that summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The uproar was focused on the district’s two most selective schools, Central High and Julia R. Masterman, which are predominantly white and Asian American, even though the district’s enrollment is 80% Black and Latino.
But Carver’s enrollment is predominantly Black, and more than three-fourths of the students come from low-income families. Wilkerson noted in her 2019 speech that it boasts a 100% college acceptance rate, and most of the students are the first in their family to attend college.
Most of the 24 students who attend Carver’s middle school but were wait-listed for the high school are Black, said Sherice Sargent, whose daughter is among them. If the goal of the new policy is equity, she said, it doesn’t feel like that to her. She said that she doesn’t understand why the district didn’t offer spots to all the current students who qualified and wanted to stay, since they still had plenty of seats for others.
“We came here understanding that our students could continue [at Carver] as long as they met the criteria,” Sargent said. “They admitted to telling us that, but said they are no longer honoring what we told you.”
In 2013, Carver added seventh and eighth grades in an effort to help prepare students for the courses and rigor of the high school, Carver and district officials said then. Ted Domers, the longtime principal of Carver who is now assistant superintendent for the learning network that includes the school, said that it had always been the case that Carver eighth graders had to reapply for ninth grade, and he made that clear to all students.
“One of the things I shared, every single year all students had to participate in a competitive process,” he said.
Like those elsewhere, all Carver eighth graders applied to five high schools and each class would include some students who left for other competitive schools, including Central High and Creative and Performing Arts High School, or CAPA, he said.
But, Domers said, it is also true, as parents contend, that when the admissions process was largely school-based and not driven by a citywide lottery, Carver eighth graders who qualified, and wanted to stay, would almost always get in.
He added: “The focus on equity is to give more opportunity for students to attend [Carver] than in the past.”
But for the disappointed Carver parents, any chance of getting in from the waitlist are slim to none, given the current over-enrollment. Carver is among five schools and special programs where the waitlists were closed.
“We’re not trying to get the district to make an exception for us, but to honor what we were told,” said Sargent. She has a son in 12th grade at the school, has served as president of the Home and School Association, and has done other volunteer work on its behalf. She said she is not blind to the issue of equity and opportunity.
During her time as HSA president, “We adopted three [nearby high-poverty] middle schools so they can pipeline into Carver,” Sargent said.
But she said she was told that many students from those schools who applied were ineligible due to scores on a controversial machine-scored writing test, which was also introduced this year as a requirement for five top city schools, including Carver.
State standardized tests in English language arts and math, the PSSA, which were previously a gatekeeper for admission to the most selective schools, have not been administered for two years due to the pandemic. Sargent believes the larger-than-expected acceptance rate at Carver may have been due to the use of the writing test. The cutoff score for Masterman and Central was 21.5, while it was 16.5 for Carver and Academy at Palumbo. Students who just missed the cutoff for Central and Masterman might have flocked to Carver and Palumbo, Sargent speculated.
“I’m a middle-class family, I bought my home and made an eight-year commitment to [Carver],” Sargent said.
Lynch, whose office oversees the selective admissions process, said that the new enrollment policy has opened it up to more students, and that the increased interest in Carver is one indicator of its success.
“The part about having more students with an interest in attending the school is significant,” she said. “We have more students across the city and other schools that are extremely interested in Carver. Applications increased greatly.”
Philadelphia’s system of neighborhood and selective, themed schools has produced some of the “best” and some of the “worst” high schools in the country; some of the most racially diverse and some of the most racially isolated.
Central High School, which was all male until 1983, and Girls High go back to the 19th century. But specialty schools proliferated in the 1970s, when schools like Carver and CAPA were created to promote desegregation. Masterman added a high school and became highly selective during that period.
In the early 2000s, on the wave of a national movement touting small high schools as more personal and able to meet student needs, then-Superintendent Paul Vallas created a raft of them, including Palumbo. More recently, during Hite’s administration, additional specialized project-based high schools sprung up aimed at students who still weren’t succeeding in any of the other options. These included the LINC (Learning in New Contexts), Workshop School, and the U School.
Many of the 24 wait-listed students, including Tafari and Sargent’s daughter, were accepted into other selective schools, but not places they necessarily wanted to attend. Vicki McCarvey’s son got into Masterman, but would rather stay at Carver because of its focus on robotics and other aspects of engineering that interest him most, she said.
”I’m not sure this is increasing equity,” she said. “I feel they could have grandfathered in students from the feeder middle school that they made promises to and then let new parents and new kids know coming in that they are not guaranteed a spot.”
Tafari, who lives in Mount Airy, got into Palumbo, another coveted magnet, but it is in South Philadelphia, at the other end of town. His mother said that she thinks Palumbo is a great school, but still wonders what is accomplished by making him move from a nearby school where he has thrived to travel a long distance to another one.
“This is not just about my son, at least he had a choice,” she said.
Sargent’s daughter got into A.B. Saul High School, which has a focus on agriculture, which doesn’t particularly interest her. “Saul is completely different from Carver, I don’t even know what the inside of the building looks like,” Sargent said.
Hite, Lynch and other district officials have made it clear that they may revise the process going forward based on an evaluation of what happened this year. “We’ll work out any revisions and changes we need to make after we see the data and make the report to the board,” Hite said. The date for such a report has not yet been set.
But any changes will come too late for this year’s eighth graders.
“This is such a strain on me,” Sargent said. “I’m supporting my son to go to college, and now I’m thrust into finding a high school for my child. And I’m making a decision under duress. Blindly.”